Among my earliest memories of eating out at a restaurant are of chowing on burgers and fries at the McDonald’s on Middle Country Road in Coram, in Suffolk County, in the early 1970s. I must have been 4 or 5. It was something of a big deal to dine out at McDonald’s.
It was a 15-minute car ride from Yaphank, my hometown, to Coram. Yaphank was farm country, all cabbage fields and dense forests. Coram was civilization, with a shiny supermarket, a strip mall and a row of fast-food eateries.
Back then, I never could have envisioned a time when there wasn’t a McDonald’s. To my young mind, McDonald’s had always existed. I had no idea that the restaurant wasn’t all that much older than I was. It just seemed so established, so permanent.
I never gave much thought to when and how McDonald’s came to be until I recently watched “The Founder,” which tells the circuitous story of Ray Kroc (played marvelously by Michael Keaton), the cunning milkshake-mixer salesman who took over McDonald’s from two industrious brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald, a.k.a. Dick and Mac. They, in fact, were the ones who created the very first McDonald’s, in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1940, 27 years before I was born. Yet on the McDonald’s website, at least, you’re left with the distinct impression that the whole operation was Kroc’s brainchild. It’s all Kroc this, Kroc that. The McDonald brothers are mentioned only once in passing in McDonald’s own history.
“Right up until he died on Jan. 14, 1984,” the website reads, “Ray Kroc never stopped working for McDonald’s. His legacy continues to this day as the system provides McDonald’s customers with great tasting, affordable food; crew and franchisees with opportunities for growth; and suppliers with a shared commitment to provide the highest quality ingredients and products.
“From his passion for innovation and efficiency, to his relentless pursuit of quality, to his many charitable contributions, Ray Kroc’s legacy continues to be an inspirational and integral part of McDonald’s — today and into the future.”
“The Founder” lays bare the complicated relationship between Kroc and the McDonald brothers. I found this artfully crafted biopic utterly fascinating. I can’t say with certainty what type of person Kroc was. The film, however, portrays him as a shrewd businessman whose craven desire to make it really, really big borders at times on insanity.
He starts out kindly enough. He’s a fumbling, middle-aged alcoholic without much going for him. Then he sees the restaurant that the McDonald brothers built in San Bernardino, with a line of hungry customers extending to the street, and he has to have it. Instantly, he sees the future. He understands the potential of this little hamburger stand. Suddenly he’s off to the races, on his way to carving out his place in history, not only as the self-described founder of the McDonald’s Corporation, but if you think about it, as one of the founding fathers of an entirely new culture.
Pre-McDonald’s, people ate on china, with silverware, which required labor to wash and dry. The McDonald brothers had the brilliant idea to package their meals in disposal paper bags and cups. You ate, then you threw. I never thought about what a novel concept that was until I watched “The Founder.” In it, you see Kroc stumble up to the San Bernardino McDonald’s for the very first time and order a hamburger and fries, wondering what, precisely, to do with his bag full of food. Then he sits. He eats. And he is smitten.
Voilá, America’s consumer — many would say throwaway — culture is born.
The McDonald brothers applied factory techniques to automate food service. Kroc capitalized on their blueprint for success, franchising their original eatery first in the Midwest and then across the nation. Eventually, McDonald’s took over the world.
Over the decades, the Golden Arches spread to 120 countries across the globe. They now serve 68 million people a day at 36,899 locations, employing 375,000 fast-food workers. Annual sales reached nearly $25 billion in 2016.
Kroc bought out the McDonald brothers in 1961 for $2.7 million — a little over $20 million in today’s dollars. That’s a sizable sum, certainly enough for the brothers to retire in comfort, but given the company’s potential for future growth at the time, $2.7 million was, as they say, a steal.
Here the film portrays Kroc as a cutthroat entrepreneur willing to crush the two men who devised the production system on which McDonald’s depended to spit out burgers and fries at breakneck pace, and which made possible the company’s ever-soaring sales.
Ain’t that America, as John Mellencamp once sang.
I swore off fast food in 2010 after watching two other important films, “Supersize Me” and “Food Inc.” Homogenized meals full of salt, fat and sugar are terrible for our health and the environment. Through “The Founder,” we now understand the business model and ethos behind the assembly-line food industry.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.